Think of your buyers like cars driving down a long and winding road that leads toward your brand. Some of those cars drive straight to the final destination—i.e., the checkout—but most of them meander and stop along the way. They gather information, ask questions, and window-shop your competitors before deciding whether to complete the customer journey.
The best way to help them choose your brand is to meet them at each pit stop (or marketing touch point) with relevant content. For that, you'll need a lot of data and a really good map.
Zoom In on the Customer Journey
In the early days of digital marketing, brands could see those cars coming, but they didn't have much data about the human beings inside beyond names and basic profile information. At best, they knew that Sarah, a 40-year-old mom of four, was in the minivan and Jamal, a 30-year-old single man living in a major city, was behind the wheel of the sports car.
With such limited data, brands had to make assumptions about the customer journey and spend their budgets on whichever channels had the highest traffic or conversion rates. But as data analytics have evolved, so has the lens through which brands can see customers. With modern marketing technology, they can gather real-time, contextual data about individual customers and then group them with like-minded customers. This allows them to develop robust customer personas and create hyper-relevant content around them.
Data-driven customer personas tell marketers far more about the incoming cars than just who's inside, but also what they value, what their goals are, and why they buy the things they buy. Consumer brands now know that Sarah might be in the minivan, but her husband is driving while she's on a conference call. What she values most is convenience, and her husband does most of the household shopping. And B2B brands know that Jamal is driving the sports car, but he's also an entrepreneur with a fast-growing business and a remote workforce, and he's only interested in quickly scalable solutions.
Personas help marketers understand who buys from them and why. The next step is understanding how and when. By mapping personas to the customer journey, brands begin to see how each persona buys, where they stop for information along the way, and what content they'll most likely want to see before making a purchase.
The Customer Journey in Five Stages
The better you understand your buyers' journeys, the more relevant content you can create—which is important, considering U.S. companies could lose $1 trillion in revenue if they fail to remain relevant to their customers, according to Accenture.
Skyword's latest whitepaper, "Content Marketing Excellence: How to Jumpstart, Evaluate, and Accelerate Your Program," outlines everything you need to know about creating relevant, audience-driven content. In a nutshell: To remain relevant, you must be able to send customers the right content at the right time. That means your content must meet their needs and interests based on who they are and where they are in the buying journey. To do that, you'll need two resources:
Data-driven personas: Mine your data to build one to three buyer personas so you can serve audiences expertly tailored content.
Audience journey maps: Create audience journey maps that chart the pain points, questions, and emotions that each persona faces at key stages in the buying process.
These key stages include:
Awareness: The prospect first learns about your product or solution.
Consideration: The prospect learns more about your solution to determine whether it meets their needs.
Evaluation: The prospect weighs the pros and cons of your solution and compares it to those of your competitors.
Decision: The prospect decides whether to become a customer.
Advocacy: A customer tells their co-workers, peers, and friends about your product/solution and shares their customer experience with your company.
Different personas will likely have different considerations, questions, and pain points at each stage of the customer journey. To send them relevant content along the way, you'll need to walk a mile in their shoes or, to return to our original metaphor, drive a mile in their car.
Mapping Content to Buying Stages
Audience journey mapping is an exercise in empathy. If you were the customer, with all the considerations of that particular persona, what would you need at each step of your buying journey? You can always interview actual customers to gain these insights, but it helps to wrap your mind around the journey first.
To get inside your customers' heads, Skyword recommends asking yourself the following questions:
Actions: What are your persona's priorities at this stage? What actions drive them to the next stage?
Questions: What specific questions does your persona have at this stage?
Pain points: What pain points are affecting your persona at this stage?
Content impact: What do you want your persona to think and feel at this stage?
Channels: Where is your persona looking for information at this stage?
Content types: Which types of content does your persona prefer at this stage?
CTA: How will your content guide your persona to the next stage in their journey with your brand?
To create a meaningful audience journey map, you'll need to ask these questions for each stage of the buying journey and repeat the exercise for each persona. The answers will help you tell the story of how that persona buys so you can know when to send what content.
Let's break the questions down one at a time:
What are your persona's priorities at this stage? What actions drive them to the next stage?
Different personas have different priorities, and those priorities often shift as they move through the buying process and gather more information.
For example, let's say you're marketing customer relationship management (CRM) software to Jamal, the sports-car-driving entrepreneur with the fast-growing business. During the awareness stage, Jamal's priorities might be to simply learn how CRM works, what it could do for his business, and who the major players are in this market.
Once he completes his research and moves on to the consideration stage, his focus shifts from understanding to comparison shopping. Now, his priority is to determine which option will best meet his needs and give him the most bang for his buck.
Then comes the evaluation stage, where Jamal's priority is to weed out vendors and learn more about the ones that piqued his interest. When it's finally decision-making time, his priority is to make the right choice so that his company doesn't waste time and money on technology that doesn't benefit his team.
What specific questions does your persona have at this stage?
Once you understand your persona's priorities during each stage, it's simpler to anticipate what questions they might have.
For instance, during the awareness stage, Jamal isn't thinking about vendors just yet; he's still trying to wrap his head around what CRM software can do. He wants to know how it works, what its benefits are for his small business, and how it will integrate with his other solutions for maximum efficiency.
During the consideration and evaluation stages, he might have specific questions about the solution and its likeliness to work for his company. During the decision-making stage, he'll certainly have questions about its price and how to get the best deal without breaking his budget. He might also want to know how to best deploy the technology and get his employees to use it.
During the advocacy stage, he might be wondering who to refer the brand to, which industries it prefers to work with, or where to leave a review for its product.
Knowing what questions each persona needs answered—and when they're likely to have them—puts your brand in a powerful position. If you can be their subject matter expert in the early stages of the customer journey, your company is more likely to be on the short list when they're ready to make a purchase.
Because they've heard pain points and queries directly from customers, sales team members can help you generate your list of questions for each stage of the buying journey.
What pain points are affecting your persona at this stage?
Modern consumers and business buyers are savvy shoppers. When it comes to participating in key buying activities, B2B buyers spend roughly 27 percent of their time researching solutions online, according to 2019 Gartner research. And 90 percent of U.S. consumers research products online before buying them, notes a 2017 Ecommerce WIKI report. But even if users know how to do their own research, it's never a bad idea to give them a helping hand.
To make each stage easier for each persona, you need to know what pain points they're likely experiencing.
During the awareness stage, are they finding too little information or perhaps too much information to make sense of? During the consideration stage, do they have unanswered questions about your product or solution? Are they getting pushback from employees, managers, fellow buying committee members, or even household members who don't want to learn about new technology? Is budget a problem?
During the evaluation stage, do they need help understanding pricing or contracts? During the advocacy stage, are they getting enough communication or support to feel good about your company? Is there a customer experience issue you need to resolve before they'll want to refer you?
The best way to understand customer pain points is to ask salespeople, your customers, and yourself one question: If you were this persona, what would frustrate you or stand in your way at this stage of the customer journey?
What do you want your persona to think and feel at this stage?
How do your prospects currently feel during each stage of the buyer journey, and how can you make them feel better with relevant content?
If they're confused during the awareness stage and you want them to feel empowered, produce and distribute content that clears things up. If they're overwhelmed by options during the evaluation stage and you want them to feel confident in their decision-making ability, maybe it's not the best time to pile on with marketing messages. Instead, you could send a whitepaper with helpful, nonsalesy tips for narrowing down vendors in your space or a list of questions to ask potential partners—ones you know your sales team will have the right answers to.
And you certainly don't want your audience feeling frustrated during the advocacy stage. Instead, you want to address any pain points with content so they're left feeling satisfied and ready to sing your praises to others.
Where is your persona looking for information at this stage?
To get relevant content in front of your audience, you need to know which channels they're using to find information and when they're calling on them. This will likely vary based on demographics and personal preferences (i.e., personas), as well as the journey stage.
For example, Jamal's awareness stage in his CRM-buying journey might begin with reading a small business magazine or industry journal. During the consideration and evaluation stages, he's likely also reading content on vendor websites and possibly asking friends on LinkedIn for recommendations.
Meanwhile, Sarah, the minivan-driving mother of four with a corporate job, might begin to search for a new home, doctor, or wardrobe on Facebook. Her awareness stage is short because she's shopped for these things before. Her consideration stage, however, could be lengthy and spread across multiple channels as she reads reviews and asks Facebook friends for referrals.
Depending on your brand and your audience, determining what information your audience is seeking at each stage could be one of the harder questions to answer. And it might be impossible to perfectly plot the path for your channel-hopping customers, but any insights you have into how they use different channels will help inform where you publish different types of content and when you target people on those channels.
Which types of content does your persona prefer at this stage?
As you plan your content strategy for each stage of the audience journey, it's tempting to ask yourself, "Which types of content will convert this persona at this stage?" However, the far better question is, "Which types of content does this persona prefer at this stage?" After all, it doesn't matter how persuasive your content is if your audience isn't ready for it or doesn't view you as a trustworthy source of information.
Brand trust is a deal-breaker or deciding factor in purchasing decisions for roughly 81 percent of consumers, according to a 2019 report by Edelman. Product-centric, salesy content doesn't foster much trust, but value-driven messaging that's highly relevant and well researched can drive lasting audience connections.
So think about the questions and pain points you've identified for each persona at each stage of the journey. Then, let those guide you as you create effective, audience-driven content.
How will your content guide your persona to the next stage in their journey with your brand?
Ideally, you want your content to be the navigator on your customers' journeys. It should answer their questions, address their pain points, and usher them along to the next pit stop/touch point. Although you can't actually control the journey, you can influence it with strong content and compelling CTAs.
Brands often think of CTAs as opportunities for hard sells or to drive audiences straight to the sales team. Those kinds of CTAs might be appropriate for content in the evaluation or decision-making stages, but they might be getting ahead of themselves for content in the awareness stage.
Instead of turning every CTA into a conversion opportunity, think of them as transition sentences that bridge the gap between different stages of the customer journey. Good content will meet users where they are and guide them to the next stage of the buying process. So if you get your content strategy right, your audience will get a sales pitch when they're actually ready for it.
Customer Journey Mapping Takes Time, but It's Worth It
Getting inside the mind of buyers and understanding the customer journey has long been the dream for marketing teams, but it's only recently become feasible. Without the benefit of sophisticated data analytics, brands could either market to targeted demographics or, more commonly, market to everyone the same way. Now, brands have the data they need to create meaningful customer personas that explain who customers are and what their buying habits look like.
To create a robust and useful audience journey map, you'll need to ask all of the above questions for each stage of the buying journey. Then, you'll need to do this process all over again for each additional persona. It's a lot of work, but once your map is complete, your content strategy will have practically plotted itself.